Monday, November 18, 2013


I spend a lot of time at a neighborhood coffeehouse called Seven Virtues. The seven virtues, which are printed on their mugs so that you can ponder them as you drink, are honesty, compassion, kindness, humility, patience, forgiveness and gratitude. Like everyone else, I find some of these qualities easier to cultivate than others.  I start the list feeling pretty good about myself: yes, I think I am very honest, and often compassionate. I can be kind. Then things start to get shaky. Humble? Well...I guess…Patient? Umm…no, not at all. By the time I get to the end of the list it’s a close race between forgiveness and gratitude for the honor of Virtue I Embody the Least. I can hold a grudge to match any Scottish grandmother, but in the end gratitude still wins. Or loses.

Here we are, entering the season of gratitude again. Last year I didn’t even try. I just said fuck it to the whole thing and refused to feel guilty about it. On Thanksgiving I went to yoga and moved my body through the positions, not hearing a word that was said. I made a caramelized onion pudding and burned my arm on the pan. The pain of the burn was the realest thing I felt that whole terrible holiday. But this year many of my friends are posting things they are grateful for on Facebook, every day. It's making me feel cranky and inadequate, or maybe it’s my own ingratitude that makes me feel that way. So I’m trying to reframe the whole question of gratitude. I’ve been thinking in terms of what, over the past nineteen months, has made me glad to be alive. For most of that time there have been three things, and only three things: Jasper, my memoir, and Crossfit.

The memoir, even more than my other writing, has been a kind of alchemy. I conjured it from nothing, about someone who never was. I understand intellectually that it’s a complex process of pulling memories, making associations, choosing and organizing words, but sometimes it still feels like magic. I hope that the result for other people will be visceral, but for me it required an inwardness that was so extreme as to resemble sensory deprivation. Which was convenient because there was not much to look at outside.

It was as if the entire world was socked in, like the top of a mountain encased in dense clouds. I could see a foot in any direction, but the rest was just white. I knew that the world still existed, that there was a peak somewhere out there, and waterfalls and wildflowers and marmots scuttling through the scree, but I couldn’t see anything. Even the sound was muffled. I just kept walking.


Jasper is a punner, a word-player. The other day we were eating appetizers at a not-very-good Thai restaurant. “This tempura is bland,” he proclaimed. “Blando Calrissian,” he said, a play on the name of the Star Wars character played by Billy Dee Williams. Then he cracked up. He cracks himself up a lot. Yesterday, eating lunch at a better Thai restaurant, I told him that I take a lot of credit for how articulate he is, because I talked to him so much when he was a baby.

“Uh, I dunno,” he said in response, his eyes full of mischief. “It’s like, umm, you know, what do you call it? I don’t know the word for it…”

Who made this kid so damn funny?

Jasper and his quotidian requirements have kept me tethered: lunches to be packed, sweatpants to be washed, playdates to arrange. He is insistently and relentlessly in my face, in the best possible way, demanding fried wontons and strawberry smoothies and bacon biscuits. His long coltish legs, his bouncing walk, his deep-set blue eyes, his 70’s teen idol hair are all right there. Close enough to see no matter how thick the fog.

I competed in a Crossfit competition a few weeks ago. In my typically heedless fashion I signed up, not for the beginner level, but for the level above that. I was in way over my head, and parts of it were rough. But there were moments that were great: handling the pressure and the noise and the crowd and getting personal bests in my lifts, cheering for teammates, managing to lift a 50-pound ball over my shoulder 26 times.

Afterward one of my coaches said that was a side of me he’d never seen before, how hard I fought. I was a little surprised, honestly, because that’s how I think of myself. Maybe it’s because I showed up at the gym seven months postpartum (read: chubby), or because I’m older, or because I’m quiet. But the fight is who I am.

I can’t help but think of Forster again, something that Mr. Emerson, the old Socialist, says to Lucy in A Room With a View: “By the side of the everlasting Why there is a Yes--a transitory Yes if you like, but a Yes.”

In the movie they take out the word “transitory” and add in a few extra yes’s, something I didn’t notice until recently. So Hollywood, to remove the author’s carefully considered caveat in order to make it more positive. Forster had it right the first time, and I agree with him with all I have.
It’s why I go to Crossfit. To say yes. Having Balthazar was a yes and now, without him, I still say yes to life with all I’ve got.


It’s not histrionic to say that my three things saved my life, kept me from walking off the cliff when I couldn’t see a thing. But now I notice that some of the fog has burned off. Beauty has been slowly coming back into focus. Maybe soon there will be more than three things that I can point to that make me glad to be alive.

An Annunciation by Fra Angelico. A song I’ve never heard before, or a song I haven’t let myself listen to for nineteen months. A beautiful man. A redheaded child. A guy playing Bach on the mandolin. Patchwork squares of vineyards glowing red across the Columbia. A moto jacket. Even something as stupid as a website enumerating the most egregious autocorrections can actually make me laugh. Out loud. With tears and everything. It’s something to be grateful for.